Monday, February 27, 2023

2/24 - 2/27 Camping and Off-Roading the White Rim Trail

The White Rim Trail. I don't even know how many times I saved some random post on Instagram about this trail so enough is enough, time to book the trip! I hopped on the website to get a reservation and was quickly surprised at how few openings were available even months in advance. Thankfully, after some quick googling, I picked two potential weekends in February where the average weather wasn't too cold and looked doable. Then, I realized the permits issued maxed out at three vehicles so I had to pick who to invite carefully. I put together a preliminary itinerary and PowerPoint, emailed it out and started putting together the trip. Unfortunately, not everyone was able to make the same weekend so I had to pick the best weekend which meant our friends Blake and Faith couldn't attend. I was disappointed that they couldn't make it, but we will plan another trip! 

Day 1 - Friday
The plan was to depart our respective states (Nevada, Arizona and Colorado) and meet at the Texaco Gas Station in Moab at 1645 local time, gas up and head to camp. It was about an eight-hour drive for each of us. Lou/Pa and Nina/I arrived a little early but Mike and Lizzy were delayed due to a winter storm over the Colorado highway mountain pass, so we elected to push to camp without them so we could scout out the campsite in daylight with the intent for them to catch up when they arrived. 

The plan for camp was to go to a dispersed camp site I identified on Google Earth that wasn't far away from both the gas station and the start of the White Rim trail so I figured it would be a good spot. The short off road trail to get to it was called Long Canyon Road then Pucker Pass. My initial research made it seem like it wasn't that bad. 

So Lou and I headed out to start the trail and quickly realized the shady parts of the trail were covered in snow. The snow was only 2-3 inches thick so I didn't think much of it as I had off-roaded in the snow before. What I failed to realize was how heavy the snow was. We think it had snowed more than a few inches previously then warmed up causing much of the snow to melt and leaving behind a heavy, dense snow layer. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the snow had bunched up in the tread of my tires right as I approached Pucker Pass and filled the lugs in completely turning my once MT tires into racing slicks. Upon hitting a small incline underneath the rock overhang of Pucker Pass, the Bronco started sliding backwards; I immediately hit the brakes to stop the acceleration with no success, the parking brake was also no help, so I shifted back into drive and tried to drive forward to stop the rearward sliding - also with no success. Thankfully, I was the trail leader so Nina radioed to Lou behind me in his Jeep, who still had traction, to rear end us to stop our sliding since we were quickly approaching a sharp bend in the road before a drop off. Although it wasn't a hard hit, it did stop our slide and gave us an opportunity to stop and reassess our plan. We elected to air down further, turn around, meet up with Mike and Lizzy back at the Texaco and come up with a new plan as a group.

The trail down was a little slick but not as bad as expected so we quickly started our way back. We reached out to them once we had service to ensure they wouldn't follow us up the pass. After filling them on the situation, they picked a local camp spot and we decided to camp there instead of pushing to a more dispersed area. 

Day 2 - Saturday
The plan for day 2 was a relaxing drive through Arches National Park to check out the Arch that inspired the Utah license plate - the Delicate Arch. We all slept in a little bit after a long work week, 8 hour drive out then an exciting evening the night prior so we arrived at Arches a little before lunch. 

Once we were at Arches, we started working our way over to the Delicate Arch parking area. Arches was a bigger national park than I thought which provided us with plenty of good views as we drove to the trailhead. Once there, we unloaded, packed up and headed out on foot!

The trail was a pretty solid incline with an icy pass at the end. Nina and Pa didn’t want to risk the ice so they turned back a little early while the rest of us pushed to the arch. It was a heck of a view! Thankfully it was off season so wasn’t that crowded but even then, there were still crowds so we had to wait in line for our turn to have the arch. Once we got some decent photos, we headed back out, met up with Nina and Pa and decided as a group what we wanted to do for lunch. 

It was a little after 1PM and we were all pretty hungry so we decided to go to the Moab Brewery for a late lunch. Although it was a brewery, none of us ordered any beers so we can’t remark on their craft beers, but I can personally say their Moscow mules were very good!

After lunch, we went to a local spot for some ice cream to really top off our lunch. Well worth the extra stop! From there, we went to the Williams Bottom Campground right on the river which was a first come, first serve campground and were able to secure three campsites next to each other. I think we would have been hard pressed to get a spot had we been in peak season.

Day 3 - Sunday
Day 3 was the big day - White Rim Trail day! I was very excited. Unfortunately for us, there was a winter storm that rolled in a few days before our arrival which closed the Shafer Trail entrance that we had planned to use. This wasn't a big deal though, it just meant we had to come in on the Potash Road which was a few extra miles. Since I knew it was going to be a full day of driving, we set an early departure time and rolled out early to seize the day! 

Thankfully, our camp site was fairly close to the start of Potash Road so we able to get a fast start. After airing down, it didn't take us long to realize the skies were looking a little dark and stormy. Although we no longer had cell phone service to check, I used my expert aviation knowledge and decided that we would be fine but we all agreed on abort criteria if the weather did turn nasty. 

Once on the Potash, it didn't take long for us to come across the Thelma and Louise point made famous by the film, you guessed it, "Thelma & Louise". This viewpoint is not something we would have been able to see if the Shafer Trail entrance had been open so I guess the weather was a blessing in disguise, at least so far. 

Although we hadn't even officially started the White Rim trail, the scenery was already awesome with overlooks of the river on one side and big ole boulders and sweeping canyon walls on the other. We, of course, had to stop a get a picture showing how big some of the boulders were. Crazy to think these boulders were once on top of the canyon wall and had suddenly fallen to the canyon floor. I would hate to be standing there when that happened! 

Once we finished the Potash Road entrance, we came to the junction of Potash Road, Shafer Trail and the White Rim Trail. It was just as the friendly Park Ranger described when I called earlier in the week - there would be a gate preventing us from accidentally turning onto Shafer, there would be a drop toilet and there would be a clear entrance to the White Rim. One glance at the sweeping, descending switchbacks of Shafer Trail covered in icy snow similar to what I encountered just two days before made me instantly thankful that the Canyonlands National Park Service regulated this trail so much since I'd hate to think what would have happened if we had attempted Shafer Trail in those conditions. After a short break and another look at the weather, we made the left turn and started our day's adventure already a little behind schedule knowing we had 75 miles to cover. 

We didn't get far before our next photo op, this time it was the Musselman Arch measuring at 187 feet long but only 5 feet thick at its thickest. We practiced our good Tread Lightly procedures and decided to not to walk across it but we did take some good photos and admire the area! The clouds were preventing us from seeing the far canyon wall which was a unique experience.

After the Musselman Arch, we had a bit of driving to do before lunch. The Park Service does a great job keeping drop toilets available and clean at each designated campsite so I wanted to push to the next campsite so that we had toilets available. The next one up was the Airport A, B and C areas. Supposedly the major rock formation in the area looks like an airport control tower but I'm not sure I saw it. Thankfully, there was no one at these campsites so we decided to stop and grab lunch. It was around this time that the weather had finally started to clear up a little bit offering us hope that we'd be somewhat warm at camp that night. 

After lunch, it was only a few short miles before we stopped briefly at the next viewpoint - Washer Woman Arch. This arch looked exactly as it was called even from the great distance away that we were, however; we didn't have the luxury of staying long so we kept on pressing knowing that we were still a bit behind schedule. 

As we continued, our next big obstacle was Murphy's Hogback which was the only real obstacle of the trail that I was concerned about. This section takes you from the canyon below up a narrow pass to the top of the mesa, passed the three campsites up there then back down to the canyon below. The way the sun was hitting the trail caused the climb to be very muddy instead of snowy so I put Bruce the Bronco in 4Lo, put both lockers on, ensured Nina had her seatbelt on and up we went. It was the kind of obstacle that you have to finish once you start. The mud was 4-6 inches deep in the thicker sections but the routs kept you on the trail as you slid back and forth trying to get traction. I was happy to have both lockers engaged for this as it kept my momentum up. All three vehicles made it to the landing before we stopped to take a look over Canyonlands. 

We didn't pause for too long though since the wind was really blowing up here. The three campsites on top of the mesa would be great views but we all made mental notes not to get a permit to stay there due to the high winds. As we pressed on, we discovered that the backside was in the shadows most of the day so instead of 4-6 inches of mud, it was a mixture of frozen ice and snow similar to what we encountered just two days before. This gave me pause as I put it in park and we all gathered to assess our options. 

Mike volunteered to walk the length of the ice section on foot while the rest of us debated pressing forward or turning around and exiting the way we came avoiding this section all together. When Mike came back, he wasn't very confident in this section but thought that going down the icy descent was a better option than fighting the mud where we just came. We also discussed staying here overnight but decided that both hills would be more treacherous in the morning when the overnight freezing temperatures would make the ice worse so we shifted the conversation to figuring out how best to do this. 

The idea we came up with is sending myself in the Bronco down first winched to Lou in the Jeep at the top of the hill where he still had solid traction while strapped to Mike in the Tacoma for an anchor behind him. The plan was to have me test out the traction of the ice with the safety net of the winch line to stop my descent if I were to start sliding. Pa volunteered to be out in front spotting me in the Bronco as needed through the various sections and was a huge help both in terms of spotting but also in terms of emotional support. Both Lizzy and Nina stayed at top of the hill in case things went sideways. It ended up being just fine as we descended together as a team. Although in hindsight I do not think the winch line was necessary, we didn't know that at the time, and we wanted to err on the side of caution especially having a sketchy situation in recent memory. 

Once we got to the bottom of the turn where the sun could hit the trail, the ice turned into mud, although not as heavy as the mud on the uphill but enough to prove to Nina that Lou's MTs cleaned far better than my stock Sasquatch package tires did especially at slow wheel speed. We took a moment to unhook from each other, shifted into 4Hi and bombed it to camp hoping to beat the sunset. This was my first real time letting the Bronco suspension fully cycle as we crushed mileage racing to camp and I was pleasantly surprised by it. I do feel the bump stops engage a bit early but I was still able to get up around 40MPH with minor bumps pretty easily. 

Although we didn't beat the sunset, we were able to set up camp before the end of Civil Twilight. I secured the permit for camp at Potato Bottom A since it seemed removed from the B and C sites and it was a great spot. It was tucked into the valley enough that the winds weren't brutal and it was right along the river. For future trips, I'd secure both B and C for larger groups on two permits. We called it an early night so we could get an early start the next day. 

Day 4 - Monday
Day 4 was the day we were all driving the ~8 hours home so we wanted to get an early start to finish the trail and hopefully be home at a decent hour. That is why I chose Potato Bottom for our campsite - it was as far as I thought we could get in one day so that our departure would be the shortest distance possible. After a quick breakfast, we packed up and got rolling early! 

I think by the end of the White Rim, Nina was about done being off road and she thought we were almost done, and we were almost done. But, since we didn't descend on the Shafer entrance, she didn't realize we had a similar exit, only this one was up the Mineral Bottom trail. Unlike the Shafer, this one gets more sunlight so there were only a few patches of snow but it was still a twisty, gnarly climb out on the switchbacks. 

Once we finished that, it was just a groomed dirt road out that we made good time on. At the end, we all aired up, said our goodbyes and headed our different ways. We all were home by dinner after a great trip! 

Overall, the White Rim was a great trail. I think we all agreed that you really need two nights on it to fully take in the trail so in the future, we would get a permit for the first night at one of the Airport camp sites then a second night at Potato Bottom. That would give us more time for photos and to explore a few of the hiking trails along the way. 


1 comment:

  1. Wow - Lots of unknown twists & turns on this trip! Glad you are all well prepared & were able to see all the arches, but many nail biting moments!!